THAT WAS NO BACKFIRE; it was a gunshot. Probably a .38 special. The ears of Johnny Riddell could tell. Ten years pounding the pavement as a Chicago P.I. had made my hearing sensitive to that kind of sound.
It was the edge of midnight in downtown Chicago at the Golden Point Club. This Monday had been quiet-almost too quiet. All evening, just two of the twelve private rooms had been occupied for head-to-head play, with the receptionist Macie Lewis up in front. And believe me . . . Macie Lewis had it all up in front. She was the most luscious, green-eyed, baby-faced brunette in the Windy City. Her daily presence at this exclusive penthouse backgammon parlor was a big reason male clientele ponied up the $1000 annual membership fee.
I had other motives for paying the grand. It allowed me to feast on the most succulent "fish" this side of the Dearborn Street Oyster Bar. I had just gutted my regular flounder Shad Riley for 55 points and sent him wriggling for the elevator not five minutes before the silence was broken. Rather than go right home, I had remained behind in Parlor 3 to review a position. Now my study was disrupted by a blast at the far end of the hall.
Each parlor door had a locking mechanism controlled by Miss Lewis so the vice squad couldn't enter unsuspectingly. My session was over. Why was my door still locked? I called for Macie to buzz me out. Where was she? Two minutes later, she screamed and I broke through the door.
I dashed down the hall. The Parlor 12 door was open. In the center of the well-appointed room was an old mahogany backgammon table and two leather armchairs, one of which had been knocked over on its side. To the left, not four feet from the table, was Macie standing over Judge Hamilton Rice. He lay still, as still as death, sprawling grotesquely on the richly carpeted floor. In his back was an exit wound just below his left shoulder. The beige carpet was slowly turning crimson.
I dropped to my knees beside him. His left hand clutched a dice cup. The dice had fallen out of the shaker with 4-1 facing upwards. The fingers of his right hand were curled around a small piece of paper. His arm was extended almost as if he were handing the paper to me. Judge Rice was a respected man. This matter had to be handled discreetly-without immediate police involvement. I took the paper out of his hand.
It was part of a scorecard and showed +61 marked under the initials "HR." On the back of the card was the scribbled message:
It looked a lot like Judge Rice's handwriting and style, and I expressed my thoughts to Macie.
"Why are you so sure it was written by Judge Rice, Johnny?"
"Because over the past 25 years, the Judge authored a dozen excellent backgammon books. And in every diagram of every book, he designated the Black pieces as 'X' and the White pieces as 'O.' It's a style he adopted from Paul Magriel's Backgammon. Just before his appointment with death, Judge might have been trying to tell us that X's last roll was double 3s.
I walked over to the board and examined the fateful setup. The chair was tipped over on the Black, or X side of the table. Hamilton Rice had apparently been playing the Black pieces and holding a 32-cube in the position shown below:
"Who was Judge Rice's opponent?" My question had evoked an uneasy concern in Macie's eyes.
"I don't know, Johnny. They were in session when I opened the place at 7:00 p.m. The Judge was the only club member to have a purple pass key. He had called yesterday to say he was going to start early. Against whom, I can't say."
"But you must have seen someone leave on the elevator following the gunshot . . ."
"I was freshening up in the powder room when the shot was fired and was afraid to come out. When I heard the elevator door open and close, I assumed the killer had left. I ran out and down the hall past your room and into Parlor 12. When I saw Judge on the floor, I screamed."
Something wasn't computing. Why was my parlor door locked following the shooting? And why would Black's roll of 3-3 push his opponent to gunplay? True, the shake allowed Black to cover his 3-blot, but White still had some chance if he could enter with a 6. There was something Macie was hiding, and Johnny Riddell was determined to drag it out of her gorgeous self before the dawn spit sunshine in our eyes.
The script from the 2002 Midwest Championships Calcutta Auction performance starring Greg Tomlin, Amy Trudeau, and Bob Zavoral as the dead body. View it on YouTube HERE.
Johnny walks over to the table and notices a full ashtray.
JR: Looks like Judge's opponent was a cigar smoker.
ML: You can't say that for sure, Johnny. The cleaning service hasn't been here for two days. Those could be old butts.
JR: Not likely. This one's still smoldering.
Ted Quinn is a cigar smoker. Isn't he Macie?
ML: Ted Quinn?
JR: Yeah, you remember Teddy. When he comes into the club, you're all over him like soy sauce on a chicken wing.
ML: I don't know what you mean.
JR: I'll tell you what I mean, honeybunny. I'm sayin' your checkers are spread and he's makin' your Golden Point. Everyone knows Teddy is about to leave his wife for you.
ML: That's not true!
JR: Maybe it is and maybe it ain't.
Johnny breaks away from the questioning. He looks at the backgammon board again, and then at the dice cup in the Judge's hand and the dice scattered nearby.
JR: Now if the Judge were X, and X is 3-3 like the note says, why are Judge's dice down here by his dice cup and not on the board?
Johnny drops the note. Macie bends over to pick it up. Johnny looks down her dress and notices a piece of paper in her cleavage.
JR: Give it up, baby.
ML: Give what up, Johnny?
JR: The piece of paper that you're using to pad your bra. Hand it over, or do you want me to go in after it?
ML: You wouldn't dare!
JR: You watch me . . .
Johnny grabs Macie, backing her up. Macie panics.
ML: No, wait!
Macie gives up the paper scrap. Johnny looks at both pieces and puts them together. He sees something, studies the board position, and looks enlightened.
JR: Come clean, Macie, or you'll be up the river without a paddle.
ML: It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Judge Rice was old. His game was weak. Teddy needed the money and told me he could beat him like a drum, so I sweet-talked Judge into playing him for a hundred a point. Teddy was going to leave his wife and take me to Monte Carlo with the winnings . . .
JR: But in reality, the dice were torturing him. Look at the scoresheet -- minus 61 points, and in this game, with Judge holding a 32-cube, Teddy desperately needed a 3 for a chance to turn the game around.
ML: And he rolled a 3! . . . he rolled a 3.
Macie is crushed -- near breaking down.
JR: I know.
Johnny puts the two pieces of paper together and shows them to Macie. By turning the "X IS 33" note upside down and fitting it together with the paper scrap from Macie's bra, the torn note reads:
JR: Ted Quinn rolled 3-6.
ML: It was the only 3 that didn't hit.
JR: It forced Teddy to enter on the 6-point and leave three blots. The judge can hit with everything. I'm sure there are lots of gammon wins.
ML: Teddy was crushed. Then Judge said, "Poor little Theodore. Even when you hit, you miss." Teddy hates to be called Theodore. And he hates to be laughed at. That's when he pulled the trigger.
I looked down the hall and Ted was signaling me to lock your door. Then he came up front and told me what happened and said that if I really cared, I would cover for him. When I went back to the room, I found judge's fresh note and tore it in half to create confusion. You can't blame a girl for trying.
I loved him, Johnny. We were going to have such a nice life together... such a nice life...
JR: Teddy will still have a nice life, Macie.
ML: How's that?
JR: A nice life sentence.
Macie puts her head down. Johnny reaches into his pocket, pulls out his cell phone and dials O.
JR: "Operator, get me the police."